City itinerary 1
Worth its salt
Crowd-pleasing Salzburg is a city so toothsome that we’re singing its praises too.
If you watch the popular 1965 film The Sound of Music today, you’ll notice that Salzburg city centre looks just as it did when Maria von Trapp (Julie Andrews) passed through more than half a century ago. Framing the inevitable high-street chains are baroque churches, centuries-old guild signs, cafés with chandeliers and marble tables, and the lush, manicured Mirabell Palace Gardens, dating from 1606. Fans of musicals will recognise the gardens as the place where the Von Trapp children sang “Do-Re-Mi”.
Salzburg is a city that doesn’t change much – “If it’s baroque, don’t fix it”, as the old joke goes. Tradition and a consciously provincial pride are writ large here, as are high culture and natural beauty. Nestled in the foothills of the Alps near the German border, Salzburg has long been a tourist destination as well as a trade centre – salt has been mined here for centuries and “Salzburg” means, rather brilliantly, “salt fortress”. Mozart was born here in 1756 and this fact draws music and theatre lovers as well as history buffs; the Salzburg Festival has done likewise since 1920. The 900-year-old fortress that gave the city part of its name sits on a hill overlooking it all, beckoning visitors to wander through its interlocking stone chambers and admire views of the spires and streets below.
Not everything here looks to the past though: near the fortress is the Museum der Moderne, a showcase of contemporary art from Austria and beyond. Amid the traditional shops selling Dirndls and lederhosen, there’s Dantendorfer, a wondrous outlet for men and women that stocks global labels such as Harris Wharf London and Fabiana Filippi. Those wanting a break from old-school cafés can opt for a berth among an arty crowd and enjoy a coffee roasted in-house at 220 Grad.
Natives take a lot of things in their stride, including the hordes who descend in summer and the city’s shift from a long-standing social-democratic government to a conservative one, resulting in slow-moving urban-planning projects and some cuts to culture funding.
“I enjoy the beauty of the baroque city within the wonderful landscape nearly every day,” says Hildegund Amanshauser, director of the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Art. “One needs this sense of beauty to survive the tourism.” An extra dose of that beauty can be found on the footpath between the fortress and the Museum der Moderne – 15 minutes of wooded respite that offers postcard-pretty views from an elevated ridge. From up here, you can hear the faint strains of choirs of nuns or opera singers, practising in the buildings below. Just look, listen and enjoy.
Hotel Sacher Salzburg
The cousin of Vienna’s grand original offers traditional Austrian elegance and service alongside its opulent rooms and excellent restaurants.
A classic coffeehouse beloved by talkative intellectuals and curious people-watchers.
Museum der Moderne’s restaurant offers panoramic views of Salzburg’s city and fortress, plus a modern interior and a delicious mingling of Mediterranean-Austrian food.
This third-wave coffee hub roasts its own beans.
In summer, listen to the open-air opera that’s broadcast from the upper terrace of the Stiegl brewery and have a Salzburg-brewed beer as the sun dips.
This family-run purveyor of liqueurs, schnapps and fruit spirits has been serving reasons to be cheerful since 1903.
Roy and Theda Dantendorfer pick sharp clothing for their Getreidegasse shop.
Alte Fürst-Erzbischöfliche Hofapotheke
This pharmacy dates back to the 16th century but its services are wholly contemporary.
To see Salzburg from above, walk up the steep trail from the city centre in 15 minutes, or take the funicular.
City itinerary 2
A once-overlooked industrial city, Linz has become a hub for art and architecture.
Known as the birthplace of what’s said to be the world’s oldest cake, the Linzer torte, Linz is perched on a picturesque bend of the River Danube, halfway between Vienna and Salzburg. Despite this, the city’s reputation as a dreary industrial backwater has persisted. Although the steelworks continues to strengthen Linz’s economy, it’s not just heavy industry that defines the city today.
That transformation began in 1979 when Linz held the inaugural edition of the Ars Electronica festival, an event that celebrates the interplay between art, technology and society. “We tried to build an innovative new image for the city,” says Christoph Kremer, director of the Ars Electronica Center, which opened in 1996 as a permanent base for the festival. It was a runaway success and Linz quickly became a world centre for media arts, its status boosted further when it was chosen as European Capital of Culture in 2009.
The Ars Electronica Centre sits on the left bank of the Danube and offers an extensive exhibition programme that’s devoted to the latest developments in artificial intelligence and augmented reality (expect self-playing pianos, interactive artworks and plenty of 3D displays). Although it’s open year-round, September is the best time for a visit as it is the month of the festival itself and other events across the city.
The building is part of a striking riverbank ensemble that includes the Lentos Art Museum (its collection of Austrian masters includes Hermann Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer and Maria Lassnig) and the Brucknerhaus concert hall, which is named after Anton Bruckner, the 19th-century Romantic composer who, although perhaps no rival to the likes of Mozart, is loved all the same here in Linz. And while we’re on a musical theme, the Linz State Theatre, which was designed by British architect Terry Pawson (really), is perhaps the most state-of-the-art opera building in Europe: its productions are pointedly contemporary compared with the more conservative Vienna or Salzburg opera houses.
The city’s cultural renaissance has swept through Linz’s old industrial areas as well, transforming a former tobacco factory, or Tabakfabrik, into a cluster of galleries, art-research labs and concert venues. City hall has also poured resources into cleaning up the largely pedestrianised historic old town, which is well worth a studied stroll.
City itinerary 3
How Graz marries world-class culture and architecture with a relaxed, Mediterranean vibe.
At first glance, Graz, Austria’s second-largest city and the capital of the southern province of Styria, is the quintessential Central European affair. It’s got a Unesco-protected old town straddling a river, streets of stately 19th-century tenements and a clocktower on a crag. On closer inspection, however, there’s as much Mediterranean here as Mitteleuropean. Perhaps it’s the mild climate or simply the proximity to Italy and Slovenia; the latter’s border is less than an hour away by car, while Italy is only a little further afield. Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that about a fifth of the population are students. Whatever the reason, Graz’s soul seems southern.
Though red-tiled roofs and a medieval feel dominate some corners of the city, there’s a good dose of contemporary architecture here: the Graz School of architects spearheaded modern designs from the 1960s, while the 2000s gave the city not just the Kunsthaus but the Murinsel – a ufo-like steel platform in the middle of the fast-flowing Mur that’s tied to the banks by a footbridge.
City visitors should brave the climb to the top of Schlossberg Hill; there’s a funicular for the less energetic. One of the symbols of Graz, the tree-covered hill and clock tower are all that remain of the city’s former castle, which was destroyed on Napoleon’s nod in 1809. Beyond the city limits, Graz, unlike other major Austrian cities, isn’t surrounded by mountains. Instead it is encircled by vineyards and orchards that add to a palpably Italian feel topped off by piazzas that are more akin to Florence or Trieste than Vienna.
Come summer, the city’s pavements and squares brim with tables placed outside cafés, while the trees lining the streets and promenades bloom – but not before the Diagonale film festival takes place in late March, marking the beginning of spring. Showcasing the best of Austrian cinema, Diagonale brings the city together for a week of screenings and debate. Another unmissable entry on Graz’s festival calendar is the Styrian Autumn, a month-long celebration of contemporary art, music, film and theatre, which runs in September and October.
In June the Fifteen Seconds festival is a forum for business, innovation and creativity but the arts remain the city’s strong suit. A 2003 European Capital of Culture, Graz is home to a huge number of museums, considering its modest population of 330,000. Chief among them is the contemporary Kunsthaus on the River Mur. Designed by British architects Sir Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, this striking blancmange of a building is not to everyone’s taste but the Alte Galerie – which displays canvasses by Cranach and Breughel – and the Joanneumsviertel complex offer more traditional architecture.
The centre of Graz dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries but there’s a young energy here hinting that the city is bored of playing second fiddle to Vienna. From our trip, we can see why.